Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and other asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries experience abusive and dangerous conditions in Mexico when not allowed to cross the border to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said today.
Two policies implemented by the administration of former President Donald J. Trump – the Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as “Remain in Mexico,” and the Title 42 summary expulsion policy – continue to be used under the Biden administration to block access to the asylum system for most people who try to cross into the US to seek safety. This includes people at a greater risk of harm in Mexico because of their particular conditions or identities, including gender identity or expression, disability, and age who should be entitled to an exception from expulsion. US authorities should stop sending asylum seekers to Mexico or expelling them to their countries of origin and should quickly process people waiting at the border to seek asylum who are at particular risk of abuse.
“The United States should restore access to asylum for all, but so long as Biden is blocked from doing so, he should at the very least immediately use existing exceptions for at-risk asylum seekers, including LGBT people,” said Ari Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Continuing to summarily expel LGBT and HIV-positive asylum seekers to Mexico or their country of origin places their lives at serious risk.”
US government protocols include exceptions for asylum seekers at a greater risk, and President Joe Biden has promised US agents will apply them. But border agents have broad discretion to grant or deny exceptions, and there are no clear consequences for agents who fail to do so or checks to ensure that exceptions are being handled properly, Human Rights Watch found.
Despite a recognition by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that LGBT people may face “increased risk of harm in Mexico due to their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Human Rights Watch documented cases in which border officials returned LGBT asylum seekers, including those with HIV, to Mexico under both abusive anti-asylum policies.
Human Rights Watch conducted 29 interviews with asylum seekers, migrants’ rights groups, and United Nations agency officials in April and May 2022, in person and by phone, in Ciudad Juárez and Mexico City, and in El Paso, Texas. Human Rights Watch undertook research in coordination with Casa de Colores, a US-Mexican organization working to provide shelter and legal services to LGBT asylum seekers.
LGBT asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch they had been expelled even after expressing their fear of returning and telling border agents they identified as LGBT, had HIV, or had experienced abuse related to their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. They also described serious abuse during their journeys to the border, including by Mexican officials.
One woman interviewed fled to the United States from Honduras, where she previously faced targeted violence for living openly as a lesbian woman, including one incident when someone cut her face, leaving a large scar. Near the US border, people she believed to be members of a Mexican cartel kidnapped her and forcibly took nude photos of her.
She said that when she explained to US border officials that she was a lesbian seeking asylum from Honduras and that she had also experienced abuse in Mexico, agents laughed at her. She said one agent told her, “I don’t care what’s happening to you.” She was expelled to Honduras, and immediately fled again to the US border, this time afraid to seek asylum for fear of being returned to Honduras again.
Previous Human Rights Watch research has highlighted the risk of illegal and arbitrary arrest, torture, extrajudicial execution, sexual assault, and enforced disappearance for LGBT people in Central America.
Although the Biden administration has moved to terminate both Title 42 and Remain in Mexico, several US state officials have filed suits in federal court, resulting in orders to keep the programs in place during the litigation.
A federal district court judge has temporarily blocked the Biden administration from ending the expulsion policy, which was first issued at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic against the recommendation of top public health experts. There is no evidence that people seeking asylum pose a public health threat to the United States, and the expulsion policy cannot be justified on public health grounds.
Though the initial Title 42 was issued without “notice and comment” procedures, allowing a period for the public to comment, the judge found that the Biden administration should have gone through these administrative consultation processes to end Title 42. Some US lawmakers have proposed legislation that would keep summary expulsions in place until pandemic public health measures are terminated.
Asylum seekers and other migrants sent to Mexico are often unable to support themselves or access basic services such as shelter, food, water, safe transportation, or health care, and have no meaningful recourse for abuses from criminal cartels or Mexican authorities. In the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Human Rights Watch found that asylum seekers and other migrants are systematically targeted for kidnapping, extortion, rape, and other violence, by both government officials and criminals.
LGBT people constitute one particularly at-risk group of asylum seekers, among others, including people with disabilities and chronic health conditions, Black and Indigenous asylum seekers, asylum seekers who do not speak Spanish as a first language, and families traveling with children.
LGBT asylum seekers and asylum seekers with HIV described additional discrimination and abuse as well as barriers to accessing essential services, including life-saving antiretroviral therapy and gender-affirming health care, services that include medical and mental health services, continuation of hormonal treatment, and other services for transgender and nonbinary people that are crucial to their health and well-being.